Most Dungeon Masters have a story to be told. We spend countless hours drawing maps, creating exciting NPC’s and mastering the plot of the story we wish to share with our loyal players who show up every week to see what you have prepared for them.
There are lot of us that put the players on a train and head them down the tracks of an exciting adventure built for 4. Along the adventure track the players will have numerous stops. These could include a night in the tavern listen to stories and gather rumors and intelligence for what is on the next stop. Rumors of a nasty band of Orc that is ambushing locals along the path to the next stop are often included.
It would be nice if all game sessions started and ended on the same adventure track, but as we all know, they don’t. The players make choices and decide on things as a group that are not always in line with what you had in mind.
What we forget is that the players often bring to the table their own story. The player’s background could have included that they are looking for a long lost relative or ancient magic ritual book. So while that one player is slowing convincing the others that they should head south to help them find their lost relative you quietly begin crumpling up the notes you had made earlier that day in a silent fit of rage.
Many years ago as a young warrior, I too tried to enlist my fellow adventurers to help in traveling to a different city from the one we were currently on course to arrive at. I never would have thought that our Dungeon Master had spent the better part on the day planning our night according to where we had decided to travel to last session.
The entire party agreed to travel to the different city within 5 minutes of us sitting down for a night of monster slaying and eradicating evil form the realms. Once we came to our decision we announced to the DM our change of plans. He was sitting in silence, the kind of awkward silence when you think you’ve upset a parent but not really sure what you have done.
After a brief moment of that awful silence our DM responded with “If you travel there you might regret it”. I’m thinking if we don’t travel there we might regret that also. Our party discusses our options and now the other city is sounding even more exciting. What could we possibility regret? We stood by our decision and announce our intent. Our DM looks at us with cross between an evil grin and perhaps a slight resemblance to a child who just dropped their ice-cream cone on the ground.
To give you the short version of our night, we were soon attacked by some not so friendly Hill Giants, which proceed to slaughter our mounts and causally bring us down to a group of Monty Pythons version of running away. Our disgruntle DM looked up from the screen of doom and smiled. “I told you it would be regretful.” We decided to go back to the original plan to avoid any further confrontation which seemed to make our DM extremely happy.
This scenario can be applied to many instants where the players have one plan and the DM has something different in mind. This becomes more of a reality when dealing with an adventure you have purchased. It can be frustrating for a DM who saved up a few dollars to purchase the latest adventure booklet with the players in mind and they decide to do something different or constantly get side tracked. I will discuss purchased adventures at a later date.
If I get side tracked on purchased material I might be ambushed by giants again.
I like to plan my stories like anyone else. It takes imagination and some creative thought to come up with new and exciting adventures every month but it is something I really enjoy. Over the years I’ve picked up a few things that have helped me run my games.
The first thing that helped wise up was reading. Each adventure story really kick started my own creative thought process. I could name a dozen authors that helped fill my imagination cup with countless ideas for NPC’s and epic quests that would lead my players to greatness.
There is huge difference between reading or writing a story and playing one out with a group of random heroes. When playing one out you are not the sole author to the story but rather a facilitator. This means you are there to plant the seeds and perhaps add a few challenging hooks and see how it plays out. I call it the adventure tree. How the tree grows is not always up to you as the author. You only planted the seeds and kept it watered with sprinkles of gold and magic. How it grows is mostly up to the players.
Once I discovered the secrets of the adventure tree I’ve the used it in every game I’ve run. It’s really not much of a secret when you think about. To offer an example how it works picture a real tree. Maybe something similar to a giant oak. You need your players to climb the tree. At the base of the tree there are perhaps dozens of roots which can be a starting points. Each root can have its own story. Once you have your players begin to climb your nefarious tree of doom the players will soon discover hundreds of branches. All these branches could represent the decisions they make along the path to glory.
You might think that you need a hundred different ways to help the players reach the top before they get too lost in the vast ever growing tree of awesomeness. This is where real planning takes place. You have to think on the fly often having your patience tested to the max.
Be calm and carry a big map.
Nobody knows your players better than you. This is where you change from having a firm plan of the night to an array of notes and possible outcomes. I have often approached my sessions like a game of chess. If the players move to the other town I will move my ogre there as well. I set up encounters with the idea that I can place them anywhere and steer players without directing them. It’s takes a bit of creativeness to be able to load severely different possible outcomes but with practice it will come naturally.
My suggestion is start building an encounter and NPC library. Doesn’t’ have to be huge a collection but enough to cover a variety of options. Think about the various branches of your tree and plan for those. If you don’t’ use one or two ideas save them for later. Coming up with a ways to steer your party to where you need them can be a bit of a brain tease. I would suggest trying to keep it simple.
Simple helps the game move along without the extra frustration level of you the DM building to the point of releasing your wave of Giants. As an example, one the easiest ways to get a group of players heading the direction I need them to go is have something stolen from them. All trails lead to the tree top. It can be that simple, and you would be surprised how much value that spell book has that just went missing.
The best advice for building your tree is don’t limit yourself. Each branch can be its own adventure and story. That humble group of players might toss an ax into your plan and you need to be prepared for it. There are times when the ax has been tossed and I have taken it to a whole new level. A new story begins to unfold and begins to take shape and you roll with the swing and start tossing your seeds on the ground once again.
Dungeon and Dragons doesn’t have an end. It has a beginning and then stuff happens and more stuff and suddenly your tree begins to grow.